The Tree of Life: 7

One other thing about the sunflowers (although there are two other things to say).  If the sunflowers stand (thanks to their positional contiguity to the rest of the mystical sequence) as an image of the human collective redeemed from its watery existence in time, then they also depict that collective as essentially classless.  To paraphrase an old German saying that Kundera put to good use in his most famous novel, one class is no class.  The film does not show a field of variegated floral species, some Buddhist, some Muslim, some Mormon, some Atheist and so on.  Nor does it show a field where flowers stand in the shadows of John Keats’s mighty oaks or Sarah Harmer’s skyscraper pines or Agent Cooper’s beloved Douglas Firs.  No, it shows a plurality of one species.  The film thus projects the idea of a classless society out of the historical realm and into the messianic.

Walter Benjamin once noted that with the idea of a classless society, Marx secularized an essentially theological notion.  Benjamin thought it necessary to restore the idea to theology and abandon it as a political goal.  Only in the Kingdom of God could the human collective be classless.  On the historical plane classes are unavoidable.  Of course, all natural and historical classes are contingent and transformable.  This remains true of the social classes of capitalists and workers, of those who turn money into salable commodities in order to make more money and those who turn commodities (like their labor power) into money in order to secure other commodities (like food and shelter).  Benjamin still held to the Marxian tenet of the perishability of social classes, of the classes respectively organized according to the constructive principles of M-C-M and C-M-C.  But he could not endorse the orthodox typological (or vulgar Marxist) view of a coming classless society.  Again, the classless society does not belong to a relative future.  It belongs to the absolute future.  (Benjamin thought that political orders could be organized according to classes other than “social,” classes he referred to as “affective.”  But that’s another story.)

It is hard to get a hold of this notion of the absolute future.  For even as Benjamin speaks of ways of promoting the coming of the Messianic realm, he declares that it is already achieved.  There is a relativistic conception of the physical universe behind Benjamin’s theology.  The physical universe is in some sense given both spatially and temporally all at once, and is perishing all at once.  The messianic order consolidates itself out of all points of the collapsing historical timescape.  In Benjamin’s cosmology, there is no end to these reciprocal processes of perishing and consolidation.  They are eternal.

Two temporalities distinguish each realm.  The time in which we move and have our historical being divides the present from the past and the future from the present.  It is basically indistinguishable from loss.  Messianic time is the time that allows for fulfillment and completion.  In messianic time succession does not mean loss of immediate unison.  If a dialectic pertains to messianic time, it cannot be an aufhebungsdialectick as there is nothing cancelled in the movement of fulfillment. One must imagine messianic time as a rather odd kind of erzeugungsdialectick or disjunctive synthesis, in which each part produced in the movement of completion is affirmed as a completed whole.  It’s hard to picture life in such a temporal medium.  The film achieves this at the beginning of the mystical sequence, where the child that Jack was shares the same stage as him, leading him to the beach.  Two successive times (childhood and adulthood) appear together simultaneously.  One is not subordinate to the other; one is not canceling and preserving while the other is canceled and preserved.  For Benjamin, something of all the partial histories, of all the physical occasions or states of affairs, that comprise the timescape of historical reality come together in the messianic order to constitute the universal history of the human species in a tremendous abbreviation…


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